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On holiday with some very interesting characters

June 20, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Before Las Vegas brought ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy and modern Paris to the Strip, Billy Butlin brought Polynesian beaches, Space Age monorails and medieval villages to the English working class. From just after World War II to the mid-1970s, the savvy businessman's chain of holiday camps served up a terrifically tacky version of upper-crust leisure.

To advertise his groundbreaking fusion of tourism and entertainment, Butlin hired the John Hinde Photography Studio to produce color transparencies for a series of postcards showing the camps at their best. Hinde's specialties were sumptuous color, art-directed compositions and crystal-clear printing. His big innovation for the Butlin job was to shoot actual campers rather than professional models.

At Rose Gallery, 17 vivid photographs made from these transparencies are on display in an exhibition organized by photographer Martin Parr. Titled after the camps' slogan, "Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight" (a line Butlin stole from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), the fascinating show provides much more than delight. Along with its richly nuanced depiction of common folk enacting fantasies of aristocratic privilege, it delivers a powerful critique of much contemporary photography.

Compared with postcards, the photographs are huge. But compared with standard gallery fare, their dimensions are humble. Most measure about 2 feet on a side and a few stretch to just over 4. Although they were shot by a trio of photographers -- Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nagele and David Noble -- the three so dutifully followed Hinde's house style that it's difficult to tell their work apart.

Such modesty is nowhere to be found in the decor of the camps' lounges, bars, ballrooms, cafes and arcades. Every bit of each room is jampacked with a visually cacophonous mishmash of plastic props, cheesy ornaments, lavish light fixtures and eye-popping patterns on polyester fabrics.

But the people in the pictures steal the show. Young and old, wearing everything from suits to swim trunks, knee socks to knee-high vinyl boots, the holiday campers are as individualistic as any of Dickens' characters.

Their expressions and body language speak volumes about the relationship between pleasure and posing, or self-consciousness and losing yourself in the moment. Many stare straight into the camera. More look awkward, as if they're not sure what they're supposed to be doing. Nevertheless, none is made fun of. And no one is unaware of the extraordinary artificiality of the sham they're acting out.

Unlike a lot of contemporary photography, which tends to run between icy detachment and claustrophobic navel-gazing, the pictures by these three journeymen show how complicated pleasure is.

Rose Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through July 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Far-out tales on a puppet scale

Wendell Gladstone is a Los Angeles artist whose hometown debut follows three solo shows in New York. That's not how most graduates of L.A. art schools start their careers (the 31-year-old got his master of fine arts degree from Claremont Graduate University in 1998). But standard operating procedure has never been Gladstone's strong suit.

At Roberts & Tilton Gallery, he combines painting, sculpture and knitting in puppet-scale tableaux that tell a cyclical story of innocence and experience, death and regeneration. Comic books, digital graphics, computer games, hard-edge abstraction, Hollywood props and Saturday-afternoon crafts are only some of the sources Gladstone mixes and matches. The best thing about his voracious art is its weaving together of logic and intuition.

In the main space, four super-sized dioramas are positioned against each of the four walls. All include a creamy white form that resembles a cross between a desert island and a tiny iceberg. On each of these sculpted pedestals stand various members of Gladstone's cast of characters: a melancholy boy, a dead octopus, three brown dogs and a pensive old man. All are about the size of the decorative gnomes that populate suburban gardens all over America.

Behind Gladstone's statuettes hang bare canvases on which he has painted color-coded symbols that mirror the events in front of them and complicate the narratives by adding essential details.

The canvases are physically linked to the figures with strands of yarn that recall umbilical cords. One has been woven into a fishnet. Another resembles a spider web. The others are red and brown. Their positions identify them as rivulets of blood and excrement, both of which flow freely in all four.

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